"In my experiments with still life it occurs to me that my art really does look very modern; it sometimes almost looks abstract,"
Since 1972, Claudio Bravo has lived in Morocco, as evinced by the title and subject matter of this still life. Displayed across the top of this chest are arrangements of three containers of various foods and other items typically associated with North Africa and more specifically with the local Berber culture. Berbers are indigenous people who populate sections of the North African continent from the Atlantic coast to the Siwa oasis in Egypt and from the Mediterranean southwards to the Niger River. Though the Berbers mostly speak Arabic today, a variety of Berber languages existed historically.
Bravo was born in Valparaiso, Chile and studied first with the painter Miguel Venegas Cienfuentes (1907-1979) in Santiago. His first solo exhibition was held at Salón 13, when he was only 17 years old. He became a professional ballet dancer in the mid 1950s. By the 1960s, he had begun working as a portraitist in Madrid and made a name for himself because of his ability to replicate reality. Clearly, the museums of Madrid played a key role in his education. Inspired by some of the major figures of the history of Spanish art, Bravo's work belies his interest in the compositions, tones, and variation of Spanish painting.
In Berber Still Life, the composition and the variation in white tones and other muted colors reflects a 1636 bodegón still life by Zurbarán in the collection of the Prado. Like Zurbarán's version, which features a variety of pieces of Spanish ceramic and silver, Bravo has also located his image in its North African setting by including fruit, ceramics, furniture, ostrich eggs, and other objects that become potent symbols of location. The colors, textures, spices, patterns and decorative objects of Tangier become the bearers of meaning in this stage-like setting. Reinventing the historical articulation of the still life, Bravo's works consider a broad range of possibilities signified by objects and the surface of appearance. Artfully piled into the Berber ceramic cooking pots and the elegant compote are ostrich eggs, pomegranates and heads of lettuce, alluding to fertility and abundance, but also to the history of the region. Ostrich eggs are among the riches found in the royal tombs of ancient Mesopotamia and were used as containers in North Africa during the fourth millennium BCE.(1) Historically, wild lettuce has grown throughout parts of Northern Africa. The surface decoration of the chest reflects designs associated with Islamic designs, particularly the eight pointed star and carved lattice pattern. The latticework design seen on the oil container next to the pomegranates is also typical of Berber design.
Bravo had his first solo exhibition in New York at Staempfli Gallery in 1970. The show was given a rave review by John Canaday, who immediately loved the artist's trompe l'oeil technique and claimed that "Mr. Bravo is a painter of such brilliance that he makes the standard favorites in the field, such as William Harnett, look flat."(2) On the relativity of realism in Bravo's work, Cristian Viveros Faune would later note:
Carried to illusionistic and mannerist extreme, naturalism has historically resulted in a certain perfectible kind of trompe l'oeil, a return to "the lost object" via paint, canvas and the determination to avoid general spoilage in nature; for example, scarified flesh or the bruise in an apple. Bravo continually skirts the real problems surrounding his otherwise precise empiricism. Rather than fool the eye into believing they represent the real, Bravo's pictures, especially the still lifes, hold us by their unreality. It is ultimately the highly conceptualized and willfully formalized character of their fiction, their elaborate artifice that draws us into them.(3)
Bravo skillfully handles the intimate relationship between hyper-realism and abstraction. Indeed, the artist has acknowledged the influence of artists like Antoni Tàpies and Mark Rothko on his colors and compositions.(4) This artful manipulation of abstraction and realism, of sparseness and detail, of object and meaning is the mark of Bravo's work.
Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, Associate Curator, El Museo del Barrio, New York.
1) Highlights from the collection of The British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/o ostrich_egg.aspxMarch 20, 2010
2) J. Canaday, "Art:The Amazing Paintings of Bravo," New York Times, Nov. 21, 2970: 26.
3) C. Viveros-Fauné, "Claudio Bravo," Art Nexus, 30:147 (Nov. 98-Jan. 99).
4) V. Davidson, "The Precisionist," Art & Antiques, 30:12 (November 2007).